Question of the Week: 6/13-6/19/16


From Sarah Kay Bierle: Though often overshadowed by their commanders, staff officers played an important role. Who’s your favorite staff officer? Why?

9 Responses to Question of the Week: 6/13-6/19/16

  1. Moxley Sorrel, Longstreet’s aide-de-camp, was by far one of the best staff officers of the war. Time and again, from 1862 on, Sorrel proved himself to be both administratively and militarily competent. He understood both his role and his commanders personality. Because of this, Sorrel was able to properly gauge what Longstreet was going to decide and predispose himself to be in be in the best position to carry out Longstreet’s commands.

    At the same time, Sorrel knew how to voice an opinion, even if it was a dissenting one. This allowed him to play devils advocate and helped Longstreet over the years question his own tactical and strategic thoughts. He often adopted his commanders ability to think outside the box but also knew how to temper his opinions so as not to appear to be challenging those around him.

    Unfortunately, Sorrel and the thousands of other staff officers get short shrift in the annals of history. My friend, Doug Douds, is working on some research in this area and I hope that he can finally give us a fuller understanding of the critical roles that men like Sorrel played throughout the conflict.

    You can get an in-depth perspective of what Sorrel saw and felt by reading his memoirs of the war titled At the Right Hand of Longstreet: Recollections of a Confederate Staff Officer.

  2. Taylor for Lee and Sorrel for Longstreet. Both being trained by their general made them irreplaceable. Longstreet previously being a staff officer and Lee as Chief of Staff in Richmond.

  3. My favorite is Frank Haskell on John Gibbons’ staff who wrote the stirring account of witnessing Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, but the most important role, albeit a negative one, was played by Captain Sanford T. Kellogg on William Rosecrans’ staff. He probably had the greatest impact on a battle of any staff officer on either side. Failing to see friendly troops present in a wooded area, he thought that a gap existed in the Union line on afternoon of the second day of the Battle of Chickamauga (September 20, 1863) That imagined gap evolved from an order to John Brannon from his immediate commander George Thomas to move his division to reinforce Thomas who had been defending the Union left after repeated attacks that morning by John C. Breckinridge’s division. Brannon thought the better of leaving his position between Joseph J. Reynolds’ and Thomas J. Wood’s division and asked for approval from Rosecrans before moving. Captain Kellogg was aware of Thomas’s order and when he failed to see Brannon’s troops, he reported back to Rosecrans that a gap existed between Wood’s and Reynolds’ divisions when it did not. Rosecrans, aware of Thomas’ request for Brannon’s division, immediately ordered Wood “to close up on Reynolds as fast as possible, and support him”

    Since Brannon was still in place, Wood could only march behind Brannon and get into position behind Reynolds and as the second part of the order directed, “support him,” thus creating a division sized gap in the Union line. Just at that time, James Longstreet’s corps sent by Robert E. Lee trom the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee fighting Rosecrans’ Army of the Cumberland launched an attack directly to and through the gap that Kellogg’s report to Rosecrans inadvertently created. The result of that blunder cost Rosecrans a potential victory and his military career.

  4. Gouverneur K. Warren. This choice might be cheating, as he served as a regimental CO (5th NY Zouaves!), and higher positions (Bde., Div. & Corps), his shinning moment, was as Chief Topographical Engineer at Gettysburg. AS we all know, he spotted the vulnerability and importance of Little Round Top, and summoned troops to defend it. Of course there were many dutiful staff officers, whose clerical/staff work made a difference in transmitting their general’s orders, but few are appreciated for their hard and vital work.

  5. Ely Parker. Quite an accomplishment at a time when Native Americans were generally considered “savages” who stood in the way of “progress”. He also trained as a lawyer but because of his ethnicity could not join the bar and was educated at RPI as an engineer.

  6. There are plenty to chose from. Rawlins ranks quite highly; I think without him Grant would not have been half so successful. Bierce is a favorite, as is Sorrel.

    My choice though is James Garfield. No staff officer in American history had a more complicated relationship with his general. Garfield was friends with Rosecrans. He was an abolitionist and eager for action. On the bad side he supported Streight’s Raid. On the good he wanted an offensive at Tullahoma at an earlier date and correctly read the strategic situation on the eve of the offensive. The degree to which he aided in Rosecrans’ fall from command is debatable; he certainly felt Rosecrans’ treatment from 1864 onward was unwarranted and had a complicated relationship with Grant. Some newspapers called his out maneuvering of Grant in the 1880 nomination fight “Rosecrans’ revenge.”

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